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Tributes Pour in for Tom Coonan

When the House returned from the August recess and conventions this past week, Speaker’s Lobby regulars might have missed a familiar presence by the east end door.

Tom Coonan, a bald and bespectacled 17-year veteran of the House Sergeant-at-Arms staff, died of a sudden heart attack Aug. 23. He was 72. People outside of the intimate Capitol Hill community didn’t hear the news, however, until Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) delivered floor remarks on his passing.

“For those who served with Tom Coonan, knew him, and were protected by him, his presence is sorely missed. But because of his steadfast and constant service, the vibrant commotion of democracy goes on,” Boehner said Tuesday. “As the House returns this week for legislative business, its Members and staff do so with unfailing gratitude for the life he led. Having stood guard faithfully at the passage to the People’s House, Thomas Coonan now stands in the halls of eternity.”

Before he joined the Sergeant-at-Arms Office in 1995 as a member of the Chamber Security staff, Coonan enjoyed a military career with the Navy that will earn him a burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

From 1963 to 1965, he was an assistant intelligence officer and commander of Amphibious Group Two. He went on to hold a number of civilian positions until 1981, when he returned to reserve active duty. In 1990, he was the U.S. Commander-in-Chief Pacific’s representative for the Southwest Pacific, Suva and Fiji.

Boehner said during his floor remarks that it was appropriate that Coonan should finish his career in the Speaker’s Lobby, “the gateway to the chamber at the heart of the democracy Tom spent most of his adult life protecting.”

Though Coonan had a seriousness of purpose in his career calling, staffers in the Speaker’s Lobby all said the first thing that came to mind when thinking about their former colleague was his off-color sense of humor.

“He was cantankerous, but in a funny way,” one co-worker said, also recalling his “hard-core” Republican politics and how he liked watching Fox News on his breaks.

“He told the kind of jokes you’d have to whisper,” another said. “But everyone always enjoyed them.”

His style and taste might have had something to do with the strong ties he maintained with the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity at Southern Illinois University.

Coonan, the fraternity’s president during the early 1960s, evidently stayed close over the years with his fraternity brothers, who made a short tribute video for him after his death.

Set to “Annie Lisle,” the 1857 ballad by Boston songwriter H.S. Thompson, the video, which can be found on YouTube, takes the audience through a slide-show of photos of Coonan. Many of the pictures feature a grinning Coonan holding a can of beer. Others are jokes: In one, Coonan is standing alongside President George W. Bush, and a caption reads, “President Bush receives hurricane advice from Tom Coonan.” In another, Coonan has his arm around a scantily clad Paris Hilton, extending an invitation to a fraternity reunion at the Holiday Inn.

Laura Gabatino, who shared the east end door post with Coonan in the Speaker’s Lobby for almost three years, agreed that he was always quick with an “inappropriate joke” and added that they often bonded over their love of dogs: Coonan, she said, had two rescued greyhounds.

“But I almost forgot to say I also really liked working with him,” Gabatino said. “I miss him.”